NEW YORK — Jan 13, 2018, 5:27 PM ET

Evangelical rift intensifies over Trump immigration remarks

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Donald Trump's vulgar remarks questioning why the U.S. should admit immigrants from Haiti and Africa have spotlighted the bitter divide among American evangelicals about his presidency.

While some of his evangelical backers expressed support for his leadership, other conservative Christians are calling the president racist and say church leaders had a moral imperative to condemn him.

"Your pro-life argument rings hollow if you don't have an issue with this xenophobic bigotry," tweeted pastor Earon James of Relevant Life Church in Pace, Florida.

Trump won 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in the 2016 election. But recent polls show some weakening in that support, with 61 percent approving of his job performance, compared with 78 percent last February, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, conservative Christians remain as polarized as ever over his leadership.

Many evangelical leaders who defended him in the past would not comment on Trump's remarks to a group of senators. A few offered some criticism. Pastor Ronnie Floyd, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said it was "not good" to devalue any person.

Johnnie Moore, a public relations executive and a leader among Trump's evangelical advisers, said the reports of what Trump said were "absolutely suspect and politicized."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who attended the Oval Office meeting Thursday, and peopled briefed on the conversation said Trump did make the comments as reported: He questioned why the U.S. would accept more immigrants from Haiti and "shithole countries" in Africa as he rejected a bipartisan immigration deal.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who Durbin said objected to Trump's remarks at that time, did not dispute Durbin's description.

Pastor Mark Burns from South Carolina remained skeptical, but said if the remarks were true, Trump was only reacting to poor conditions in Haiti and Africa that were the fault of "lazy governments" there.

The Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas and a frequent guest at the White House, said that apart from the president's choice of words, "Trump is right on target in his policy," putting the needs of the U.S. above those of other countries.

Yet anger spread among other conservative Christians.

They posted family photos on social media and proudly noted immigrant relatives. Bishop Talbert Swan of the Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, the country's largest black Pentecostal denomination, tweeted a photo of one of his grandchildren born to what Swan said was his "educated, hard-working" Haitian-American daughter-in-law.

Swan, based in Springfield, Massachusetts, called Trump's comments "vile, foul-mouthed, racist," and posted the hashtag #ImpeachTrump.

A significant number of African immigrants are Christians who joined U.S. evangelical congregations, and many have become advocates for more generous immigration policies and critics of Trump's views on the issue.

Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of Anacostia River Church, a Southern Baptist congregation in Washington, said his church includes Christians from Rwanda, Nigeria, Guyana, Cameroon and Zimbabwe.

"This is my immigrant family, my true brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus," he wrote on the site of The Gospel Coalition, an evangelical group. "As a shepherd, I cannot abide the comments our president makes regarding immigrant peoples and their countries of origin. I cannot leave them alone to hear racist barbs, evil speech, incendiary comment, and blasphemous slander against the image and likeness of God in which they are made."

American connections with Christians overseas also have grown in recent years through mission projects often in Haiti and Africa.

In one of the more dramatic examples, Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," created a partnership between his Saddleback Church in California and the government of Rwanda that involved short mission trips by more than 2,000 congregants. Church members worked with more than 4,000 Rwandan churches providing health care, training pastors and helping orphan, among other projects.

At the same time, evangelicals are increasingly aware in a geographical shift in global Christianity. As its numbers shrink in North America and Western Europe, the Christian population is exploding in Africa, Asia and elsewhere, creating ties across borders.

Todd Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, said African Christians closely follow evangelical voting in the U.S., and have deep concern about American evangelical support for Trump.

"I heard many Africans say they were dumbfounded by this," Johnson said.

The Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, an author and Anglican priest who serves at The Church of the Ascension in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, worried about the fallout for the fellowship of evangelicals outside and inside the U.S. Her denomination, the Anglican Church in North America, was formed under the leadership of African Anglican bishops to serve conservative U.S. Episcopalians and others. Her local church includes parishioners from Uganda, Iran, Turkey, China and other countries.

"It hurts evangelism," Warren said of the president's comments. "I've sort of come to expect him to say outlandish things. I sort of expect that from him. But I do expect more from the church and from Christian leaders."

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  • Bill Pitt

    Christians seeking political power demonstrate a lack of faith because they abandon God in favor of worldly power. Its bound to fail because political leaders always disappoint. It hurts the cause of Christ, because you are known by the company that you keep...and in Trumps case...well that, speaks for itself. Close your DC offices, fire the lobbyists, return to the Great Commission. Feed the hungry, clothe and house the poor and homeless. Cure the sick and injured. Go into the communities that no one else will. Stop trying win a culture war, its not your job. Set the right example and people will follow. Be what Christians are supposed to be or stop calling yourselves "Christian".

  • barbarakelly

    from some of the gop guys that were there said ----he didn't say what they are saying . It was another way of attacking Trump. After all it came out of durbins mouth. and with Graham he is the usual Rhino

  • BF1964

    I'm not sure what kind of Christian would support a president who brags about molesting women, plots to rip immigrant families apart, spews vitriol every time he's challenged, and tells the poor and needy who dream of a better life that they come from sh-hole countries and if they were just lily-white Norwegians they'd be welcome here. I'm ashamed that our country has put this hateful lunatic in a position of power, and I just pray he gets impeached one day.

  • helicohunter

    Many "Christians" are perfectly willing to make a deal with the devil if it gives them what they want, such as lower taxes or outlawing abortion. Never mind that Rump was once pro-choice. In fact, he has flip flopped on almost every position except for the belief that he should pay less in taxes.

  • FredKapelski

    There was no transcript of the meeting. So, we are left to believe members of Congress who dislike the President, a news media that can not be trusted. I find it hard to believe members of Congress and the media about ANYTHING. Both are the sources of unending lies and deceits. I was in Haiti a long time ago. Yes, the President's "reported" remarks pretty well summed up what I saw. People living in huts made of cardboard and some wood, with a stream of garbage and sewage running down the middle of the dirt street waiting to be flushed by the morning and evening rains. And that was the good part.

  • RMarvel

    We still don't know if Trump actually said this or not. 2 other Senators in the room are adamant he did not say it, and Dick Durbin said it was repeated over and over. Somebody is lying here, and I'm going to go with the sewer rat from Chicago, whose state is so dysfunctional they couldn't even pay their lottery winners last year.

  • pcpeeps

    Tough situation for the Evangelical right wingers. They either stand with Donnie or (gasp) turn to a Democrat. My guess is they "hold their nose" and continue to support Trump.

  • sommerday

    Mahatma Gandhi
    “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. .... Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

  • sommerday

    "Your pro-life argument rings hollow if you don't have an issue with" Republicans cutting social-net programs for poor (programs that help after poor children are born).

  • PeterFromDuluth

    American Evangelicals(let's call them AE) are not evangelicals who happen to live in America. The term became a proper noun indicating people who hide their bigotry behind intentional scripture distortion. They hate many people thinking they serve God that way.
    Simple evangelicals, no matter which country they live in, follow the Jesus's golden rule:"Love thy neighbors." Neighbors here are not defined by skin color, zip code, or political party. Neighbors are everybody we run into in everyday life.

  • Go Fish

    Wow, defending Haiti as though it weren't a shthole...now that is rich.